Thinking of Sex Work as Work

Acknowledging the diversity of experiences among sex workers is crucial to safety and respect.
Cover art from Melissa Gira Grant's Playing the Whore (Verso)

Writer Melissa Gira Grant's forthcoming book, Playing the Whore, is a short, focused effort to change the way we publicly talk and think about prostitution and sex work. Rather than focusing on the "sex" part—the risqué acts at which we can shiver in prurience or horror—Grant suggests we focus on "work." By doing so, she argues, sex workers become neither corrupters who need purging, nor victims who need rescuing, but workers who need the sorts of things all workers need—access to healthcare, a safe work environment, and protection from abuse and exploitation.

In the interview below I talk with Grant about sex work and labor, and their relationship to feminism and gay rights.

What is the greatest danger sex workers face? Or what is the most important thing sex workers need? Or are those the wrong questions?

They're impossible questions to answer because people's needs are diverse and people's experiences are diverse. So I think that's the first place to start. There is no one solution, there is no one project, there is no one political point of view that can possibly speak to every single person who has experience in the sex trade.

But starting with the first part, what is the biggest danger? I really think that having to live under systems of criminalization such as that in the United States, where almost everything having to do with selling or buying sex is criminal and often completely unregulated. It's incredibly difficult for people to protect their rights as human beings and workers, to ensure that their civil rights are respected, when you're working in an environment that says, "Well, this isn't actually a job, you kind of get what you deserve. And even more so, you might be a criminal."

Now the new tendency is to call you a victim of the sex industry. So, the problem is not that you've experienced victimization in the sex industry, the problem you have is "the sex industry," and the way we're going to resolve that problem is to remove you from it.

That is a one-prong approach, which is going to fail a lot of people because that's not what people are telling you their problem is when they say, "I experienced an abusive customer." Or, "I experienced a police officer impersonating a customer in order to get free sex from me, and then threatened to arrest me if I didn't do that." Or even when someone says, "I called in sick today at the strip club where I work and I got fined $200, so now I'm going to show up at work the next time owing them money. That feels coercive and exploitative, and also why am I being fined for being sick?" Who else gets fined for being sick?

So, talking about the differences of experience in sex work, I wondered if you had thoughts on ex-sex workers who support abolition. I know that Andrea Dworkin was a sex worker for example, and there are some anti-porn former porn workers. So what do you say to them, or how to you respond to their arguments or concerns?

When you're making policy about the sex industry, we need to engage with the diversity of experiences that people have. And those experiences are not going to be universally great. I feel like there's this myth that if you have any sort of policy approach towards the sex industry that stops short of absolute abolition, and you're a sex worker, then that must mean you love the sex industry and you think that sex work is great.

And that's not the case. There are many people who have had incredibly negative experiences in sex work who would rather not do sex work—who would rather do anything else—and fit that stereotype of someone who has been victimized by the industry. But they don't define themselves as victims in the industry and they don't want to abolish the industry. They want to have the ability to work safely if that is the work that they are doing, have to do, or find themselves doing. Just as there is a continuum of ways in which people get into sex work, whether through choice or circumstance or coercion, no matter what your experience of sex work is, that doesn't graph neatly onto whether you are pro-industry or anti-industry.

It's entirely possible to be anti-sex work but pro-sex workers rights. And I want to open up space for people to talk about that. To say, "I think this work can be exploitative, I think this work can be dangerous, but I know that the way to be safe isn't to wait for abolition." It's to look at how we can actually help people here and now.

I feel like these aren't necessarily exclusive things. There can be people who want to abolish the sex industry that also have care, compassion, and interest in the here-and-now needs of sex workers. It's such a mistake to say that sex workers who are fighting for harm reduction or [against] criminalization are somehow throwing others under the bus. Reducing the harm of criminalization is going to benefit anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. Giving people access to what they need to care for their health or families is going to increase the well-being of anybody in the sex industry, no matter how they got there. That stance is being mischaracterized as somehow ignoring this more important project of abolition.

I wish that people who are very committed to abolition could hear that there might be sex workers who would support you in that project, but their priorities are making it through this week. Their priorities right now are what they need to do to survive, and are you also listening to those needs that they have?

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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